Month: September 2015

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

1439510441783I liked the book, so it’s a tad weird to put “disappointed” in the same sentence, but have you ever read a book where you absolutely loved the first third – the setup, the world building, the characters – and then it turned into something else that, while reasonably entertaining, didn’t quite captivate you as much? Red Rising was that book for me.

The sci-fi dystopia has been around for decades, and the stories of a brave teenage protagonist out to challenge a totalitarian regime have enjoyed huge success recently with the likes of The Hunger Games, so there’s nothing particularly new about the book’s premise… but damn if it didn’t suck me in from the very first page. Our hero is Darrow, a sixteen-year-old miner who lives and works in the bowels of Mars, along with the rest of his caste called Reds. As befits any future totalitarian society worth its salt, all the humans have been divided into groups with their own particular tasks, in this case, colour-coded ones: Reds, Pinks, Blues, Greens etc., which also refer to the actual hair and eye colour of the individuals. Running the whole show is an aristocratic caste called Golds, who are basically superhumans and for whatever reason go under ancient Roman names – Octavia, Nero, Cassius etc. The Red miners’ lives are bleak and hard; a person over thirty is considered old and the Golds maintain ruthless control by encouraging drunkenness and competition between the mining groups, and punishing those who step out of line with flogging and hanging. But all in all, Darrow believes that the Reds are performing important task of making Mars habitable for the rest of the human race, who are still stuck on the dying, overcrowded Earth.

The blurb on the back of the book reveals it anyway, so it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that, one day, Darrow discovers that everything he’s been told is a lie. Mars has been inhabited for generations, and he and his people have been nothing more than slaves maintaining the hundreds of beautiful cities on its surface, where the rest of the colours live. This knowledge and a painful personal loss move Darrow to accept an offer from a mysterious rebel group, who disguise him as one of the elite Golds so that he can infiltrate their society and help bring it down from the inside.

So far so great; the story is told with urgency and punch, and while some of the developments were rather predictable it didn’t diminish the drama and emotion. You really get a sense of what a nasty, brutal place Darrow’s world is. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of the surface cities and the future technology, although you have to accept the contrivance that Darrow somehow knows all the proper names for the things he’d never have seen in his life. The story also works in the Greek and Roman mythology, which I appreciated having been a Greek mythology obsessive in my teenage years.

Then, at around 33% mark, the book turns into… well maybe it’s unfair to call it The Hunger Games on Mars, as the setup is not exactly the same, but it’s pretty damn close. When I realised that this was going to be the setting for the rest of the book, I felt a tad deflated; it was like the author teased me with a vision of this intriguing strange world, with multiple inhabited planets no less, and then locked the characters in some drab, generic setting that simply can’t offer that much variety. That’s not to say the book gets bad or anything; there’s still plenty of tension, some good character interactions and twists that I genuinely didn’t see coming. Darrow, who by the virtue of being The One does get to be smarter and better than anyone else, still stuffs up sometimes and needs to learn things about himself, the other Golds and what it takes to be a leader. But considering how excited I was after the first third, the rest of the book didn’t quite live up. Also, while most of the writing is good, again particularly at the start, the aristocratic language of the Golds sometimes came off very contrived, kinda like a bad parody of English upper classes by somebody who watched a couple of Downton Abbey episodes.

Still, the ending opened up some very juicy potential for the sequel, which I do plan to read. Here’s hoping that the author doesn’t get stingy on the scope next time around.

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

9780099284765-1I’ve read three novels by Maugham so far and this one, which I believe is one of his best-known books, was my favourite. Based on the life of Paul Gaugin, The Moon and Sixpence is a study of an artist named Charles Strickland as seen through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, who comes in contact with Strickland at various times in his life. When first introduced, Strickland, a banker in his forties with a wife, two kids and a comfortable life, doesn’t strike him as anything more than a conventional, decent middle-class bore. That changes when, out of a blue, Strickland abandons his family and leaves for Paris (then later Tahiti) – not for another woman, as his wife initially believes, but to be an artist.

Strickland’s passion and drive for art and beauty is so all-consuming it leaves no space for anything else, including other people. He is cold, self-absorbed, completely lacking in empathy, oblivious to the lives he ruins, to the extent where it makes you wonder how he had managed to pass for a normal human being for the first forty years. He also remains an opaque enigma throughout the book and we never get the kind of insight that can make other deeply unlikable fictional characters at least partly sympathetic. In the last third of the book, we lose touch with him completely as the narrator travels to Tahiti some time after Strickland’s death to piece together his last years. Yet what’s also clear is that Strickland lived in a grasp of a fierce, primal, unstoppable force much bigger than himself:

“He lived more poorly than an artisan. He worked harder. He cared nothing for those things which with most people make life gracious and beautiful. He was indifferent to money. He cared nothing about fame. You cannot praise him because he resisted the temptation to make any of those compromises with the world which most of us yield to. He had no such temptation. It never entered his head that compromise was possible. He lived in Paris more lonely than an anchorite in the deserts of Thebes. He asked nothing from his fellows except that they should leave him alone. He was single-hearted in his aim, and to pursue it he was willing to sacrifice not only himself – many can do that – but others. He had a vision. Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.”

I always had a soft spot for the stories of people – real and imaginary – who are utterly consumed by art, but not many of them portray the cost of this single-mindedness so memorably. Though Strickland’s devotion to art is ultimately romanticised and even people he harmed view him with compassion.

Maugham’s beautifully clear prose is just exceptional, there were so many times when I stopped to re-read a particular passage, wishing I could memorise it word for word. Later in the book, he touches upon the idea of some people being born out of the place where they truly belong, and the question of what constitutes a life well lived. If something in the book rubbed me wrong, it was the frequent misogyny; though I guess it’s fair enough coming from Strickland who is portrayed as an altogether unattractive individual, and of course you can’t divorce an author from the attitudes of the time they lived in. Maybe what really bothered me about the idea implicit in the novel that Strickland’s second wife, a young Tahitian girl who does whatever her husband tells her and welcomes his beatings because that’s how she knows he loves her, is in fact a perfect wife, is the sad fact that this “ideal” still lives on today.

Everest

everestmoviex-144292675284pclYeah… I’m not picking up mountain climbing any time soon.

Everest is based on the true story of the disastrous climb in May 1996 when eight people lost their lives on the mountain due to the combination of horrible weather, poor decisions and just some plain bad luck. The film is a fairly straightforward portrayal of the tragedy; at the start, we meet Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a New Zealander whose company offers guided climbs to the summit of Everest, and his group of adventurers. They spend some time at the base camp, where Rob decides to team up with a rival expedition leader, a laid-back hippyish climber called Scott (Jake Gyllenhaal). Then they’re off to the summit, and it’s not too long before the first ominous signs of an impending disaster begin to appear.

What I liked the most about the film was the feeling of authenticity – I honestly forgot at times that I was watching a movie and felt more like I was watching a real-life documentary. Of course a film can only give you a small glimpse into what it’s really like to climb the tallest peak on earth, but what I’ve seen on screen looked scarily real. I’ve no idea where it was filmed, but all the actors looked properly cold and miserable and worn down for sure. Another ace is the superb cast of character actors – among them Josh Brolin, Emily Watson, Robin Wright and Keira Knightley. It’s not a role of a lifetime for any of them; we get very brief glimpses into the characters’ personalities and what motivates some of the climbers to put themselves through so much pain and risk, but there’s simply not enough time for real depth there. Still, even if the character writing is kinda thin, the solid, grounded work from the cast did enough to make me give a damn, and there’s no jarring effect that I feel sometimes when I watch movie stars pretend to be regular people (George Clooney in Gravity *cough cough*).

It goes without saying that the mountain scenery is absolutely stunning. Mountains in general put me in a mood of awe before nature’s glory, and the vast, icy landscapes of and around Everest are amazing. There are also perspectives that leave you with a dizzying, stomach-churning feeling, like the shot from the bottom of a crevice which would spell instant death to anyone unlucky to fall in. What I also admired is that the visuals never felt like they were overwhelming the human story in a way of, forget all that drama, just look at this pretty scenery everybody!

If there was a drawback, it was similar to the reservations I had about The Perfect Storm, another real-life disaster drama starring George Clooney (now he made it into this review twice somehow). Both movies are about a tragedy which, when you get down to it, did not have to happen, and people who lost their lives didn’t do so in a pursuit of something I’d find admirable. I’ve no doubt that to many people, pushing yourself to the limit in order to conquer Everest is something to admire, but it’s just not something that resonates with me personally, especially when climbing Everest has become a form of extreme tourism. The film does touch on the less palatable side of guided climbing – the overcrowding, the competition between the groups, the pressure of Rob’s company having to look good in media especially when there’s a journalist on the team but overall the film is not out to portray the climbs as men’s folly. What it aims to do is to simply tell a story imbued with tension and emotion, and it does succeed at that.

Music I got recently

By a strange coincidence, the albums I’ve acquired lately are all by the British (and Irish) female artists and feature moody black-and-white cover photos. They are however nothing alike musically.

ArticleSharedImage-47481Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Every time an artist I really like releases a new album my reaction is half excitement, half trepidation – what if it’s no good? Luckily it’s three for three so far for Florence. The reviews I’ve read billed this as a more subdued, intimate offering, and while that’s somewhat true it only really feels reigned in by comparison to Ceremonials, where the melodrama and bombast were cranked up to 11. That album remains my favourite, but a slight change in direction is a smart move, there’re only so many tribal drums and viking warrior vocals you can do before it becomes repetitive. While for me the new album doesn’t have an individual standout track like Rabbit Heart or What The Water Gave Me, the songs are all strong and Florence’s voice is still marvellous, with a few of the songs displaying a new delicacy. It’s a damn shame I’ll be missing out on her live shows this time around.

toughloveJessie Ware – Tough Love

When I first listened to this I kinda went, nah thanks not for me, too polite, too beige, too smooth, too much like dinner party background music. But first impressions aren’t always right; after I gave it more time I realised that this collection of songs about love, romance and heartbreak actually falls on the good side of refined soul-pop. It’s still too polished for the songs to have any real emotional punch, but Ware’s vocals are fantastic and at its best it’s the kind of classy, sophisticated stuff Sade used to make (and I love me some Sade).

soak_before_we_forgot_-_600(1)SOAK – Before We Forgot How to Dream

A rather wonderful and promising debut album by a teenage singer-songwriter from Northern Ireland. It’s got the kind of shimmering, melancholic vibe that can only come from the British Isles; it makes me think of walking down some northern beach on an overcast day, looking out at the vast grey ocean. Most of the music is guitar, with some violins and piano thrown here and there. The mournful, wistful mood can get a bit samey over an album’s length, but the idiosyncratic vocals and the general loveliness make it a good listen.

WIGLP357_GEORGIA_ALBUM_sleeve_1Georgia – Georgia

Another debut album, this time by a London girl called Georgia (GEoRGiA) Barnes. Rather hard to describe; she’s a musical magpie in that she throws in all sorts of samples and elements to create her own unique electronic chaos. The second track for instance samples a cassette she was given by a Pakistani cab driver, apparently. There’s one track that resembles MIA a lot, but otherwise this feels completely original, fresh and a whole lot of fun to listen to.

Random Acts of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann

9780552774222This book was rather frustrating. It started off with a bang – in 1992, somewhere in South America, a young man named Leo wakes up in a hospital to find out that his girlfriend Eleni was killed in a bus accident. He has no memory of the crash, and is utterly overwhelmed with grief. This story then alternates with something completely different – in 1914, a young Jewish man named Moritz, who lives in what would later become Poland, is off to the war to fight for the Austro-Hungarian empire, leaving behind a girl he loves. So the book is about these two men in different eras, whose lives revolve around the memories of the women, and who go on quests spurred on by love – a more physical one in Moritz’s case, a more spiritual one for Leo.

While the idea for the book was nice, I don’t think the author quite pulled it off. The blurb on the back of the book promised that the hidden connection between the two men would be revealed in a stunning climax, but really the nature of their connection was so inevitable and easy to guess there was nothing earth-shattering about it. I wasn’t convinced that these two stories needed to be joined into one volume. The first few chapters of Leo’s story, as he deals with getting Eleni’s body back to Greece for a funeral and slowly recovers the memory of the accident, were very moving and well-written. However, once he returns to England and life goes on, his moping and angst get increasingly less interesting. I think that a prolonged grief, in general, is rather hard to write without sounding tedious.

Another problem is that the secondary characters who pop up at this point – Leo’s parents, his friend Hannah, his eccentric university lecturer with theories about love, universe and electrons – never feel like real, believable people. I’ve also noticed that, in this second half, the writing style at times slips and becomes awkward and forced; Hannah and Leo’s exchanges in particular sound like they were written by someone who’s got no idea how to write believable “edgy” dialogue between two young people.

Moritz’ story is rather more interesting – he ends up being captured by the Russians and sent off to a remote Siberian camp, where he spends a few miserable months before resolving to escape and make his way back to home and his beloved Lotte. Moritz’ journey is long and perilous, and he has to cross the country which becomes engulfed in chaotic civil war after the revolution and rise of the Bolsheviks. Lotte herself, however, is a problem. While Eleni is already dead at the start of the book, it at least gives you a sense of her personality and her relationship with Leo through flashbacks, but Lotte is merely a faceless prize at the end of Moritz’ journey. No joke, the only thing you learn about her is that her family is well-off and that she really liked the pair of shoes Moritz’ father made for her. The entire courtship is covered by a couple of lines; when she promises to marry Moritz once he’s back from the war, I went, um wait what when did they become a couple, did I miss something? As a consequence, though Moritz is a likable character and you do want him to succeed, it was hard to really give a damn about that relationship. At one point, the book does acknowledge the fact that Moritz loves a memory of a girl he’s known for a very short time and hasn’t seen in ages, but still, I wish his lady love wasn’t such a cypher. I got far more emotionally invested in the unlikely friendship between Moritz and Kiraly, an abrasive and foul-mouthed Hungarian soldier, which develops after both men are captured. Overall, I just wish that the author ditched Leo altogether and concentrated more on the other storyline – as the epilogue reveals, it really was the main reason for this book to be written.